'Twas the nightie before Christmas


We were pretty well ready by Christmas Eve: fowl collected from wild-eyed butcher; foul giblets set to simmer under queasy, heaving iridescent scum; ancient pudding chiselled from permafrost of freezer; even mince pies baked to a better-than-average standard, viz: three trays passable - one blackened cinders. Then Farm- ing Today (R4) woke me to tell me I'd forgotten something. Holly, it seems, is not just for pictures; no, I should have gathered it the night before and sewn it inside my nightdress.

At this point, gentle reader, I nearly called it a day. Just Tuesday. I'm afraid I can't now recall the supposed purpose of this ancient custom from Hereford-and-Gloucester, but it's probably a form of primitive misogyny. Either that or some rustic cove decided to invent it, hoping to live on in a dusty box in the BBC vaults, filed under "Xmas: trad: rus".

He had one more stab at immortality before I went back to sleep - throw a branch of holly after a runaway cow, he advised, and she'll return to her byre. Oh, right. Must find a stampede somewhere when it's really morning and try it ... wonder if you have to do it before lunch ... or af-ter the Queen ... or wearing long white beard.

Magic Marco from Leeds wouldn't let a yokel's sense of tradition worry him. He hired the get-up, made a reindeer (am I hearing this?) and videoed his own festive message to enliven his day. His wife Janine is tolerant. His 30ft tree, set up on 1 December, is just ladened wi' glitter, says Janine - but, and however, if they won t'Lottery they'd all be in Hawaii.

Suzy Andrews's instructive, endearingly comic essay on English frailty, Our Christmas (R4), shared the day with three households. There were some young London actors and the family of the seventh Earl of Bradford to compare with the cheerful Leeds clan. The London boys started drinking early and ended the day crashing into dustbins while shooshing each other noisily, turning the radio into a breathalyser. As for the Bradfords, they fell to discussing Prince Edward, as you do, and how nice and netshral he is, between telling young Ben to just stop it right now and bewailing the lack of servants.

All three households were sensible of that heightened sensitivity to sentiment that swirls around Christmas like Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Flowers, kindly provided by R3 just in time for sprout-peeling. Heady, sweet, and sticky as sloe gin, the mix of emotions - real, imagined and alcoholic - was gaudily reflected in several programmes that swung giddily from the portentous to the hilarious, via the maudlin and the sad. Judi Dench, John Moffatt and Michael Williams performed a marvellous anthology of Fond and Familiar (R4) old poems and parodies, many of which were my father's party pieces.

Limericks, epitaphs and autograph-book exhortations jostled with old war-horse recitations and some inspired lunacy. I especially liked two things: the solemn singing, in canon form, of the rule "If you haven't been the lover of the landlady's daughter, then you cannot have another piece of pie"; and some very satisfactory lines new to me - "They said it was a job that couldn't be done -/ With a smile he went straight to it./ He tackled that job that couldn't be done -/ And he couldn't do it."

Bitter as a daily dash of angostura came the New Yorker cynics in Park, Bench & Co (R4), casting a witty, weary eye over the idiocies of society, while Willie Rushton's last recording, An Antidote to Christmas (R3), was a gently sparkling glass of Badoit, offering the elegant, crisp sound of the BBC singers at play on silly songs and Willie's choice of monologues reflecting his own wry whimsy. It led straight into the mulled claret of the Voices Christmas Party. All through the year Iain Burnside introduces this excellent series, and he clearly enjoyed sharing the job, for once, with Kit and the Widow. Not so sure about Ann Murray, though, who sounded disapproving of their antics. Perhaps it was the wicked juxtaposition of her tear-jerking rendition of Mother Machree and their outrageous hymn to maternal weakness, Mother's Little Vice, neatly illustrating the contradictions of the season.

It's been a richly reward- ing radio week and I've left myself space only to mention a few of the other plums. Hattie Naylor's dramatisation of Alice in Wonderland (R4) took liberties with the text that, surprisingly, liberated it, revealing the scary, illogical elements in a story that often seems unsuitably unsettling for children. Georg Solti's Fidelio (R3) came from Salzburg and sang magnificently of freedom, while Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe (CFM) came from Westminster, with a cast of real politicians doing the talking bits. They were frightful, hamming it up like the inhabitants of Ambridge playing at being amateur actors. Gilbert described these peers of highest station as pillars of the British nation. Alas, they sounded more like the lower-middle classes he ordered to bow before them.

Class was the issue for Simon Parkes in his fascinating Paid Companion (R4). The ancient Lady Scarsdale has always, she said, been "veddy veddy good with may starff", but she is now reduced to one hard-working woman called Nancy. The relationship between the lady and the gentle- woman was subtly and sensitively defined: we groaned for the apparently unconscious exploitation of Nancy, but she didn't herself - Parkes thought it was the last flutter of Edwardian manners.

And finally to the stalwart of the panto, the Dame. Dame Edna Everage completely enveloped Michael Berkeley yesterday when she revealed to him her Private Passions (R3). Her choice of music was an exercise in sustained, hil-arious self-parody. It inclu- ded Khachaturian's Sabre Dance in a truly ravishing arrangement by the Andrews Sisters; Bless this House, composed by an Australian housewife called May Bra; and finally herself in a concerto for megastar and orchestra. People, she proclaimed, will be paralytic with gratitude. Oh yes we were.

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